A jazzy all-American state dinner for Chinese prez

By Darlene Superville And Nancy Benac

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 19 2011 11:02 p.m. MST

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama welcome China's President Hu Jintao to the North Portico of the White House.

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Michelle and Barack Obama welcomed a mix of Hollywood A-listers, big business types and prominent Chinese-Americans to the White House as they threw a "quintessentially American" state dinner Wednesday for the president of China, complete with apple pie and ice cream, and jazz music for the entertainment.

The first lady was clad in an elegant red shoulder-baring gown that swished around her in soft folds and the president sported a tuxedo as they welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao on a red carpet on the White House portico. An honor guard stood at attention behind them.

Celebrity star power arrived in the form of singer Barbra Streisand, her hubby-actor James Brolin and action film star Jackie Chan. Big business turned out in force, too, including Microsoft's Steven Ballmer and JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon, among others. Among the big names: fashion's Vera Wang, Vogue's Anna Wintour, artist Maya Lin, Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer to add some gravitas. Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter made the cut, too.

Wang wore a floor-length, sleeveless design of her own. Wintour opted for a white, patterned Chanel skirt suit.

The dinner's all-star jazz lineup included trumpeter Chris Botti, two-time Grammy Award-winning vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, jazz icon Herbie Hancock, rising pianist Lang Lang and four-time Grammy-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Jazz pianist Peter Martin, part of the entertainment lineup, prepped for his appearance by springing for a tux.

"I'm finally a grown-up, graduated from renting to owning," Martin tweeted, adding that he was "super-excited" about the White House gig.

Regular folks who find themselves in a last-minute frenzy before guests arrive can take comfort in knowing that it's the same at the White House: Hours before the dinner, chair cushions were stacked in the front foyer and harried staff shuttled flower arrangements to and fro.

New this state dinner: The 225 guests were spread out among three rooms: the State Dining Room, Blue Room and Red Room, then all shuttle to the East Room for the entertainment. Big video monitors were set up in the Blue and Red rooms for the outcasts to catch the dinner toasts.

The two presidents' toasts featured the usual promises of better relations all around, and Obama used the moment to highlight an agreement that will ensure the beloved giant pandas from China remain at the Smithsonian National Zoo for another five years.

Also new: The Obamas opted against bringing in a high-profile guest chef, instead putting White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford in charge of preparing an all-American themed dinner at the request of the Chinese delegation, the White House said.

On the menu: d'anjou pear salad with farmstead goat cheese, poached Maine lobster, orange glazed carrots and black trumpet mushrooms, dry aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, double-stuffed potatoes and creamed spinach. Dessert was to be old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream.

Obama is known to be an avid eater of pastry chef Bill Yosses' pies.

Streisand, who also made the guest list for an afternoon luncheon at the State Department, said she was appearing at her first state dinner since the Clinton years. The singer, who helped raise money for Obama during the presidential campaign, said she had "a lot of friends here."

Asked for a thought on why she had been invited, she quipped: "I worked in a Chinese restaurant."

Wintour said she hoped to talk to Hu about — what else? — fashion, specifically investing in Chinese fashion.

There were some high-profile no-shows, including three of the top four leaders of Congress: House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who declined Obama's past state dinner invitations; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.; and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

With the Senate out of session, Reid was home in Nevada and McConnell just wrapped up a congressional trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan and had not planned to be in Washington this week, aides said.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was the only top congressional leader to accept an invitation. Many in Congress see China as an economic threat to the U.S. Pelosi also has been a longtime and outspoken critic of China's human rights record.

At a White House news conference with Obama, Hu punted when asked to comment on the congressional leaders' absence.

"I think President Obama is certainly in a better position to answer that question," he said, drawing laughter from journalists and the U.S. and China officials seated in the East Room.

Obama punted, too.

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